The Balkans

Sunbaking on the balmy shores of the Adriatic Sea and swimming in crystal clear water, appreciating the mountainous landscapes and villages, enjoying a few aperol spritzes with old friends, and generally relaxing, the Balkans was what we had been dreaming about! We didn’t know much about the Balkans before we arrived, but now that we've been there we wouldn’t hesitate in recommending a visit.

Getting into the Balkans, and moving through, proved harder than expected. After departing Gallipoli we headed straight for the Turkey-Greece border. Unfortunately we didn’t get much further. The border crossing was the most disorganised of the entire trip! The fiasco climaxed when the crazy lady managing the processing of numerous carnets had her breast honked by an impatient truck driver and threw Alex’s passport and carnet on the ground and stormed out yelling “it’s kaput”. After the chaos settled a calmer lady explained that they had no “green card” insurance policy forms so we could not enter. We could either wait until midnight (when a courier was supposed to arrive with the new forms) or go back into Turkey and head 150 kilometres to the northern crossing where they had the forms. We took the latter option. When we arrived at the northern crossing we discovered that they didn’t have forms either (and never have). So after technically entering Greece twice and exiting/re-entering Turkey twice, we gave Greece the bird and headed for Bulgaria. We only spent one night in Bulgaria but it was awesome. Instead of heading straight for the capital Sofia we elected to stop in a small town called Plovdiv that Alex had read was worth a look. Good call! We scored an awesome accommodation deal at Hotel Ego and had a feed at Restaurant XIX Century across the road. The restaurant is not listed on TripAdvisor but is a must do! It was full of locals for good reason – the food was epically good. On the way out of Plovdiv Alex picked up a new drive chain. His existing chain was starting to get tight joints and he was concerned the fast highway riding might finish it off.

Entering Macedonia proved problematic. For some reason the border police believed that our Queensland registration papers were copies (as they didn’t have a stamp). There is only so many times a man can hear “it’s not ooorrriiigggiinnnall” before he cracks. We held our ground and after much discussion and several visits to the head officer we were let in. We headed straight to Lake Ohrid where we made camp just shy of the Albanian border at around 10PM. A number of people had recommended Lake Ohrid but honestly it didn’t live up to expectations. We arrived at 9pm and pitched our tents in a grassy van park with Wi-Fi. We had fast food for dinner and hit the hay. In the morning we met some Polish tourists traveling in flashy rental vans. A bit of an improvement compared to the Aussie Wicked Campers.

We entered Albania on a Sunday. We expected to blast through the rural areas and arrive in Shkoder in good time. Not to be. Sunday weddings in Albania are all the rage and huge processions make their way up to the numerous churches that line the shores of Lake Ohrid for the ceremony. It’s tradition for the processions to crawl so that they can really appreciate the moment. We didn’t appreciate it. The narrow dual lane road that leads from Lake Ohrid to the coast was jammed. When we eventually landed in Shkoder we found a sweet little hostel, squeezed our bikes into the courtyard, and enjoyed a night out with some fellow travellers.

Montenegro, what a ripsnorter! We’d planned to spend two nights in The Bay of Kotor that had been recommended to us by Sedat, the Turkish rider we’d met earlier in the trip. Lucky we did. Initial impressions weren’t great. Travelling from Albania the scenery was flat and bland, the traffic was heavy with tourists and it was pouring with rain. However, once we passed through the final tunnel before the bay we knew what all the fuss was about. The World Heritage listed bay is surrounded by the Dinaric Alps. The water is deep blue and there are a number of forts around the old village.

After a walk around the bay we came back to the hostel and met Marko and Aljo, a couple of Slovenians on a spur of the moment, shoestring budget cycling trip from Slovenia to Macedonia. Marko spoke impressive English, which he claimed he learnt solely from cartoons on TV. The hostel was booked out so after a big night drinking Raki and some free hostel punch they slept on the walkway out the front of the hostel right on the water’s edge. We ran into them (literally) the next morning and ended up staying at a café for hours talking about our routes, Balkan political history and Kazakhstan, which Marko had a fascination with.

After a day off in Kotor we headed for Croatia. Once again our Queensland registration papers didn’t look official enough for the border lady. We had the usual argument. She would say “Not original!”, and we would say “These are original!” This went on for a while until she slammed her window shut and crossed her arms. She didn’t seem to mind that the massive queue of non-EU cars and bikes were backed up behind us. We weren’t bothered – we’d used the same rego papers for the previous 20 or so countries and what were we to do? Stop the trip right there? We were going to London! We eventually parked to the side, explained our situation to other less stressed border guards, paid for our Europe green card insurance and eventually got stamped in.

We then made our way to a camping spot which we had found and pinned on our phone maps. It was only 15 minutes from the border crossing. It was in a nice quiet spot and so we decided to stay for a couple of nights. Alex changed his chain and Todd realised he had a dead battery from charging his laptop from the bike. Luckily before we left we had disabled the safety mechanism that prevents the bikes from not being able to be roll started. No problem at all.

We then headed for Dubrovnik which had been the one place we were really looking forward to visiting since leaving Vladivostok. We met Sarah and Ben there, two of Alex’s friends from Brisbane who were now living in London. We had a great time catching up, having nice meals and exploring the old town. After a nice four days of relaxing and a sweet boat trip around the islands it was time to part ways. We planned to meet up with them again in London.

We rode through Bosnia and Herzegovina in about 10 minutes then made our way towards Split in Croatia. We had a tight schedule to follow since we had booked a date for the bikes to be shipped off in advance so we had only planned for one night’s stay. We decided to camp outside of town near a beach, rather than dealing with the traffic and exorbitant accommodation costs in the city. The camp site looked nice at the beginning but soon realised we were only metres from the main road, separated by a concrete wall. There were flood lights on for the whole night beaming straight into our tents and the ground was too hard to get our tent pegs in so we collected rocks to hold the guy ropes down. We got up early and set off for Slovenia!

Below: the GPS tracker on Alex's bike shows the two failed attempts to get into Greece. Bulgaria will do instead!

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